King Lear, Act 1, Scene 5
Having sneakily and shamelessly (can one be both sneaky and shameless at the same time?) used the insane popularity of ‘1984’ to draw you all into the blog, I think this is the point at which I reveal my secret ulterior motive…
That’s right, it’s time to whip out the Shakespeare.
But never fear! If you do happen to be one of those people who doesn’t like the plays, I honestly promise you my next blog post will be absolutely nothing to do with the Bard. So why not just read this one and see if I can maybe possibly convince you Shakespeare is the best? Pretty please?
I’d wanted to see ‘King Lear’ at the National Theatre since it was first announced to be starring the amazing Simon Russell Beale back last autumn, and let me tell you, it certainly lived up to my expectations.
Although how could it not, with such a fantastic cast?! Tom Brooke, reliably quirky and likeable actor of ‘Sherlock’ and ‘The Boat That Rocked’ played an energetic, quirky and likeable Edgar (a hard part to pull off, considering how much less interesting he is than the other characters), whilst the veteran Shakespearean actor Sam Troughton, who I saw as Brutus in the RSC’s Julius Caesar back in 2011, portrayed the much more entertaining, seductively evil Edmund. One thing I think Troughton did especially well was make Edmund believably trustworthy – one could see why Gloucester had faith in him above his ‘true’ son. An outward sign of Edmund’s switch between ‘good’ and evil was the nerdy glasses which were violently snatched from his face as soon as he was able to spill the beans on his nasty deeds to the audience, his unwilling co-conspirators. It was a wise choice by Mendes to cut Edmund’s sudden reform at the end; better for him to die boasting than to randomly feel guilty just as he dies.
Also on the wicked side was Anna Maxwell Martin, star of ‘Bleak House’, ‘Philomena’ and ‘Death Comes To Pemberley’ as probably the most immoral character of them all, the woman who makes even Lady Macbeth look like a rather decent woman; Regan. Playing up the sexy, manipulative side of her character, Martin sashayed and swayed around the stage, screaming and spitting out her lines – to such an extent that some of the more elderly members of the audience sitting behind me complained they couldn’t understand her a lot of the time. Personally I didn’t have such a problem, but she did speak incredibly rapidly at points.
Kate Fleetwood played her more human, but still pretty sinister sister, Goneril. This is the first production I’ve seen where the difference between the two sisters is made clear; Regan is virtually amoral, sadistically delighting in gouging out Gloucester’s eyes (ergh, as usual there was plenty of blood), whereas Goneril seems more understandable. I mean, let’s be honest, I’d be pretty irritated if my dad turned up my house with a hundred boisterous, shouting, drunken soldiers who ignored me completely and disrespected my servants. I really liked how Sam Mendes (the director) showed the complexities of each character; that they weren’t just black and white.
Saying that, there are clearly some ‘goodies’ in this play. Stanley Townsend as Kent and Stephen Boxer as Gloucester were both excellent, and Olivia Vinall (Desdemona in last year’s five star ‘Othello’) was nicely feisty as Cordelia. I did think it was a shame she and the King of France weren’t seen as more of a partnership on stage; they exited separately which I felt somewhat dampened the romantic impact of his acceptance of her cast-off, penniless state.
Adrian Scarborough (who my brothers know as Pete off Gavin and Stacey, but who is also in Miranda, Mrs Biggs, Pyschoville) played the Fool with the sense of empathy which is so important to the role. Now, another *spoilers alert* here: this production finally gave the Fool his own untimely onstage death, much earlier than reported in the script, and in the most shocking way possible; in such a way that, true to the seven stages of grief, I think the majority of the audience were in denial for a good few minutes, but which I felt was a brilliantly inventive addition, and really showed the extent of Lear’s madness.
This brings us nicely onto the star of the show, (and also the perpetrator of his own Fool’s murder), Lear himself, Simon Russell Beale. Well I knew it was going to be good, but this performance was shining excellence, which brought many of the audience to tears by the end, and was a powerful portrayal of a once powerful man slowly succumbing to the dominance of dementia. As the tics became increasingly noticeable and Lear tried and failed to ignore what was happening to his mind: ‘O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven’, his oncoming madness became more and more poignant. His recognition of Cordelia really did seem like a miracle, but one that could never last; a bit like in The Notebook. A tender, yet fiercely honest portrayal that was nigh-on perfect at showing the contradictions within the complex character.
In fact, overall the production was basically flawless. The setting was a modern-style dictatorship, which worked pretty well I thought, though nothing to write home about. The storm was well produced and, as Michael Billington of The Guardian wrote: “Yet although the [first] scene has an epic quality, it is filled with human detail…This mixture of the epic and the intimate runs right through the production.”
What I’m trying to say here is: if you can possibly get tickets, do. I enjoyed this more than last year’s much lauded ‘Othello’ and this is from someone who wasn’t that big a fan of King Lear previously. This is the most emotional, real and balanced production I’ve seen so far; usually Edmund dominates, but here it is Lear, the real star, who shines out.
King Lear at the National Theatre: 5/5 stars